OUTSIDE LINEBACKER CHRISTIAN KIRKSEY
Arrival: Kirksey arrived at Iowa a tall, skinny linebacker from Hazelwood East in the St. Louis area. He was sort of like a Lab puppy. You just kind of knew Iowa had something, but it might take awhile to see exactly what. It didn't take that long. Kirksey was put on special teams almost instantly.
He broke in at linebacker as a true sophomore last season. He started the first seven games at weakside and, after injuries forced some shuffling, he switched to outside linebacker for the final five games.
Kirksey led the Hawkeyes with 110 tackles. He also had five tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He also had an interception against Michigan.
Believe it or not, last year was just Kirksey's fourth playing organized football.
2012 Takeoff: The 6-2, 221-pounder played for two seasons under coach Mike Jones, the former St. Louis Ram, at Hazelwood East High School. Kirksey played for the Hawkeyes as a true freshman last season, all on special teams. And now, here he is, a veteran outside linebacker.
That’s an incredible climb, especially considering the fact Kirksey came to Iowa City weighing just 195 pounds. That’s small for a running back at Iowa, and so, yes, that’s undersized for a linebacker at Iowa and in the Big Ten.
Jones isn’t surprised, though. He saw this coming. Jones saw a family that was behind their son. He saw a player who took to the team and the game.
When Kirksey, whose nephew Brandon Kirksey played D-line at Minnesota, started playing at Hazelwood East, the school was on the verge of a state title. In his first year, Kirksey joined a veteran team with a few college prospects.
He checked his ego and learned.
“He had to basically earn his stripes with those guys,” Jones said. “He kept his mouth shut and he knew what to do. And he just kept getting better and better and better.”
Every player has something that grabs coaches’ attention and gets him into the starting lineup. For Kirksey, it was speed. Jones and his staff saw it during the first week of practice.
Kirksey lined up at fullback. On the third play of a scrimmage, he took a simple trap play 80 yards for a TD.
“I looked at my offensive line coach and we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we’ve got a football player,’” said Jones, who’s now the head coach at Lincoln University in Baltimore Pike, Pa. “He started off a little slow, but as he got better, the one thing I realized about him, he could really run. He ran extremely well for a guy his size. He blossomed.”
Kirksey knows speed is his thing and he banks on it.
“Because I am a smaller guy, I pay attention to my speed,” Kirksey said. “I can’t be in too many wrestling matches because of my size, so I try to use my speed to my advantage.”
In a way, Kirksey signaled change at the linebacker spot. Before he moved to defensive backs in the offseason, assistant coach Darrell Wilson said it this way:
“Sometimes, being quick and aggressive is better than that big, sluggy guy who maybe can’t get there,” Wilson said. “You want physical kids who can get there (and tackle) and get out and play in space … I think that’s the route we’ve gone with these ‘backers. They might seem light, but they’re still very tough, physical football players who can hold their own in the running game.”
Kirksey was moved around a little bit last season. He seemed to find a home at outside linebacker.
Does he have a home at outside linebacker?
"It looks like I'm going to be there for a little while, but I'm ready for whatever the team needs," Kirksey said.
Kirksey, who weighed in at 227 this summer, likes it on the outside. It ask him to play fast and that's his thing.
"You're sort of out there in space, on an island by yourself," Kirksey said. "You have to tackle well in space. You go against slot receivers and they move faster than guys in the box.
"In space, you can't always go for the big hit. You've got to get your arms around and secure the tackle."
If it's not a slot receiver, Kirksey finds himself battling tight ends. At Iowa, that means some quality time with junior TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-7, 265-pound linebacker headache.
"I go against him all the time in practice,' Kirksey said with a smile. "He gives me great looks. It's fun, but competitive."